‘Bishop’ by Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme was born in Pennsylvania in 1931.
Pennsylvania is very clearly a Northern State, and Donald Barthelme lived a significant part of his adult writing life in New York City, New York, which is also clearly Northern. There is little in his writing that would lead most readers to identify it as “Southern literature.” However –
– Barthelme moved to Houston, Texas when he was just two years old, grew up there, spent the later part of his life there, and died there. His father’s parents were from Galveston, Texas. Like so many Southern writers before him, Barthelme sought to light out for new territory – in this case the Big City. New York was a prominent setting in many of his stories; most of his work was published in The New Yorker; he titled a collection City Life.
The late story ‘Bishop’ is atypically straightforward, unadorned, and realistic for a Barthelme joint. Even though he denied it in an interview, the tale employs autobiographical elements. It’s a miniature portrait of an alcoholic writer, the titular Bishop who, in the course of writing a biography of the painter William Michael Harnett, discovers another painter, John Frederick Peto. ‘Bishop’ is a melancholy, elegiac reminiscence without a direct object. It seems to be set in New York City, but the final lines of the story extend to Barthelme’s own youth, to memories of his grandparents’ ranch in Galveston. Lost in thought, Bishop remembers “walking in the water, the shallow river, at the edge of the ranch, looking for minnows in the water under the overhanging trees, skipping rocks across the river.” The rural reverie recalls Barthelme’s Southern roots. It’s a peaceful if pain-tinged moment of realistic reflection.

First published in The New Yorker, August 1980 and available for subscribers here; first collected in Sixty Stories, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982

‘Game’ by Donald Barthelme

A great short story is tightly wound, not one wasted moment, and ‘Game’ is a breathless, claustrophobic, paranoid tale which takes place in a single room in an underground bunker. The two protagonists – Shotwell and the Narrator – are bored and restless, armed with pistols and rocking each other to sleep at night. The story feels as suffocating and airless as the bunker they live in. They are frustrated and strange, and in charge of possibly releasing a missile that could destroy a city. Power to destroy is always in the wrong hands, ‘Game’ suggests, because that degree of power can warp a soul.

First published in The New Yorker, July, 1965, and available to subscribers to read here; collected in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968, and Sixty Stories, GP Putnam’s Sons, 1981

‘The Indian Uprising’ by Donald Barthelme

I love listening to stories. I love reading too, but to paraphrase Ishmael: Being read to,—oh, sweet friends! What will compare with it? My first audiobook was a cassette copy of The Railway Cat (1983), which I would listen to under a blanket, and I have been moving in that general direction ever since. I first came across Donald Barthelme’s stories when I heard ‘The School’ performed on a podcast. After that I listened to the several readings of his stories on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, before borrowing an old hardback copy of Sixty Stories from the library and trying to work out what the heck was going on. Every time I read (or listen to) ‘The Indian Uprising’ I discover something new. It’s an intricate web of images, allusions, lists, repetitions. Is it about love? The Vietnam War? Genocide? The cruelty of children? The baseness of men? All of these and maybe none. Another interesting thing about listening to stories is that every reading is an interpretation. To hear writers (especially writers) read stories they love is to hear what they love about them in every pause and every bit of cadence or emphasis. I think Chris Adrian’s reading of ‘The Indian Uprising’ argues for it as an essentially sad story, an interpretation I agree with. A few years ago I was tempted by an audiobook of Sixty Stories, read by an actor. I found it to be oozing with unfortunate comedy, nothing like the Barthelme I know.

First published in the New Yorker, March 1965. Collected in Sixty Stories, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981, available to listen to on the New Yorker podcast here

‘The Balloon’ by Donald Barthelme

Chosen by Carolina Alvarado Molk
‘The Balloon’ is as understated as a love story can get. A balloon appears one morning, covering miles of the Manhattan skyline, and remains without explanation for twenty-two days. The narrator talks us through the city’s varied reactions to the balloon, its speculation over its purpose, before revealing, in the last paragraph, that the balloon is “a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure,” a response to a lover’s brief absence. The subdued affect of the writing gives way, finally, to the enormity of feeling the balloon represents. I love the element of mystery in this story, the unassuming tone, both the relish and the fear of the balloon. There’s something almost claustrophobic about its descriptions – “There were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there” – that feels just right. Sometimes you miss someone, and the missing them clouds and shades everything.

First published in The New Yorker, April 1966 and available online here. Collected in Sixty Stories, Putnams, 1981
Carolina Alvarado Molk writes essays and short fiction, often about loneliness, motherhood, and immigration. She tweets at @caro_molk

‘Porcupines at the University’ by Donald Barthelme

I somehow believe I can actually remember the feeling of standing in a bookshop in America and reading this story for the first time. How completely it blew my mind that Barthelme’s bonkersness was a genuinely possible way of doing the job of ‘writing stories’. It also made me sort of die laughing, having just spent a first year at university being party to the kind of anxious conversations the Dean has with his wife about ‘facilities’. And whether they have sufficient for ‘thousands and thousands’ of porcupines, currently marauding their way across the plains towards the university, and now on close incoming approach. “Maybe they won’t enroll”, says the Dean, trying to reassure himself: “Maybe they’re just passing through”. Honestly, Donald. That was enough for lifelong love. Porcupine emoji, heart emoji. 

First appeared in The New Yorker, April 1970 and available here. Collected in Forty Stories, Putnam, 1987. Also available online here

‘The School’ by Donald Barthelme

No one’s pan is more dead than Barthelme’s, and his humour is lethally brilliant here, though perhaps with less of the relentless whimsy that characterises the majority of his oeuvre. This recalls the scene in the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life, when the teacher must explain – and demonstrate – the act of human reproduction to a class of bewildered school children. It represents a great and original twist on the themes of eros and thanatos. Laugh-out-loud funny. 

First published in The New Yorker, June 1974. Collected in Sixty Stories, Penguin Classics, 2003

‘Concerning the Bodyguard’ by Donald Barthelme

Imagine a story told almost entirely as a series of questions. Here is one such story in which we learn, indirectly, about a bodyguard’s life and the life of his employer, “the principal”. Plot is subtly interwoven into this story. Salman Rushdie was the writer from whom I first heard of this story when he read it for The New Yorker podcast. Years earlier, in the 1990s, one of my first jobs after leaving university was with Penguin Books, publishers of many authors including, as it happens, Eric Carle, Donald Barthelme and Salman Rushdie. While I never met Carle or Barthelme, I did occasionally see Salman Rushdie. This was at the time when Rushdie lived under the death threats of his fatwa. Rushdie had to have bodyguards and there was extra security at our offices which made Rushdie’s reading of the story particularly poignant.

First published in The New Yorker, October 1978, and available to read online there. Collected in Forty Stories, Putnam, 1987, and by Penguin, 1989. Hear Salman Rushdie read it online here

‘RIF’ by Donald Barthelme

I still love the way that Barthelme’s stories played with form and expectation, and with the texture and appearance of the story on the page, colliding different kinds of language and illustrational forms within a single story. ‘RIF’ is a great example of Barthelme’s signature ‘dash-dialogue’ stories. These are improvisations, punctuated (as Barthelme scholar Jerome Klinkowitz puts it) in ‘The European style’, with each new line hanging on an M-dash, sansquote marks. The punning ‘RIF’ of this story’s title is a ‘reduction in force’, a workplace restructuring, and Rhoda is in line ‘to be riffed’, that is to be made redundant. I gather that Barthelme wrote these ‘dash-dialogue’ stories precisely because they could be improvised and thus were quick to write. In ‘RIF’, the back and forth conversation between Hettie and Rhoda is by turns whimsical and absurdist: there are sentimental reminiscences about pay-rises, and talk of a former partner being discarded ‘like an old spreadsheet.’ This is a good story to give to a short story class or workshop, because you can get a couple of volunteers to perform it aloud: one can be Hettie, the other Rhoda. They will discover quite quickly that there is a proofing glitch (at least there is in my 1988 Secker and Warburg hardback, but I wonder if this error has dogged the story its whole life). Two utterances on the second page are elided, which means that at a certain point Hettie becomes Rhoda, and vice versa.

First published in Forty Stories, 1987, first UK edition Secker and Warburg, 1988

‘Engineer-private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft Between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916’ by Donald Barthelme

The One You Don’t Want to Share with Anyone:

It’s not just this Donald Barthelme story that I don’t want to share with anyone – it’s allof them. I actually get upset, and jealous, and angry when other people talk about how much one of Barthelme’s stories mean to them. Because, really, how could they know? They weren’t there. 

Yes, Barthelme’s stories can be so playful – with their insistence on deconstructing structure and style and technique and everything else – that sometimes they topple over into glibness. They can come off cold. A lot of them were first published in ‘The New Yorker’, after all. They’re never completely silly, though. Never daft for the sake of it (which is what a lot of his imitators miss). There’s always a logic there.

And when there’s a heart, when Barthelme’s games accidentally uncover a moment of resonating, delicate emotional depth, almost in spite of himself, it’s lovely.

And so it is with this story of the painter Paul Klee, observed by omniscient the secret police, who comes up with an artistic solution to the loss of a plane.

To my surprise and dismay, I notice that one of them is missing. There had been three, tied down on the flatcar and covered with canvas. Now I see with my trained painter’s eye that instead of three canvas-covered shapes on the flatcar there are only two.

But what I’m saying iseven if, after reading this story, or all the ninety-nine other stories spread across this collection and its companion ‘Sixty Stories’, even if you think you get Donald Barthelme, trust me, you don’t. Because he’s mine.

(First published in The New Yorker​, 1971. Collected in Forty Stories, 1987. Available to read online here)

‘The Balloon’ by Donald Barthelme

I first read this printed on the bible paper of Volume E of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. It was the first year of my English degree, and I was too tight and too skint to buy my own. Luckily, a flatmate in my halls of residence jacked in the course after the first week. She left her full complement of Nortons stacked on our kitchen table, with a note instructing me to “take these – or burn them, whatever”. Anyway, I’m not one for memorising anything but, I think if challenged I might be able to recite whole swathes of this off-book. Every time I read it, I get the distinct impression that these lines have been running in my head all the while.

First published in The New Yorker in 1961. Collected in Sixty Stories, 1984, and The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume E, Norton, 2002

‘The Balloon’, by Donald Barthelme

A giant balloon appears in New York, inflated by our narrator, stretching from 14th Street to Central Park, although the narrator “cannot tell us the exact location” of its beginning point. A “spontaneous autobiographical disclosure”. I love the reactions to the balloon, the mixed reviews it gets in the press, the way that the people of New York begin to locate themselves in relation to it, how the lack of advertising seems perplexing.

I remember when I was reading this for the first time there were rumours that Coca-Cola were planning to project their logo on the moon for Y2K, a project ultimately scrapped because the lasers would need to be strong enough to “cut planes in half” for it to work. Somehow, that seemed perfectly logical to me, as though of course a brand would project itself on the moon. The balloon, however, has no visible purpose, and is all the more confounding to the story’s characters because of it.

First published in The New Yorker, April 1966, collected in Sixty Stories, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981. Can be read online here

‘Chablis’ by Donald Barthelme

In the summer of 1993, when I was 18, I stayed in a timeshare apartment in Lanzarote with some friends. The apartment had cable TV, which none of us had back in England, so for hours each day we sat around watching MTV Europe, curtains closed against the permanent sun as our hangovers ebbed.

We heard a handful of songs a host of times: ‘Numb’ by U2, ‘Plush’ by Stone Temple Pilots and Soul Asylum’s ’Runaway Train’ were all in heavy rotation, but it wasn’t the music that made a lasting impression. In 1991 MTV made a series of public information broadcasts called Books: Feed Your Head, designed to get teenagers reading. Two years later, these short films had either only just made it onto MTV Europe or were still playing. Either way, they changed my life. Sherilyn Fenn reading a passage from Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus was fine, as was Aidan Quinn hamming up Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but the one that really sunk its hooks into me was Timothy Hutton, standing at a barbecue in a hot, windy yard perched above a freeway, performing what I later found out was the opening paragraph of a story called ‘Chablis’ by someone called Donald Barthelme.

The extract struck me as being perfect: characterful, unexpected, and honed with the precision of a really fine piece of comedy (watching it again I don’t enjoy Hutton’s delivery as much; I remember it being more deadpan). As soon as I got home I tracked down 40 Stories, found ‘Chablis’ right at the front of it, and started a love affair with Barthelme’s work that continues to this day (although ‘Chablis’, it’s worth noting, is something of a realist outlier for him). To be honest, falling in love with Donald Barthleme probably set my writing back a few years, because there is nothing so disastrous as a bad version of his writing, and any attempt to emulate his writing is bad, or at least inferior.  You can see George Saunders struggling with this influence – far better than most, but still struggling – in his first collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline.

That same summer of 1993, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son was published in the UK, a book that quickly became my other pole star and which also led me down many treacherous and frustrating paths as a writer. Almost any of the stories in Jesus’ Son could fill both of the old and new halves of this list, because they have lived with me for 25 years but I also re-read the collection so often, and each time find so much in it, that the stories can feel like new discoveries, too.

In his 1981 Paris Review ‘Art of Fiction’ interview, Barthelme was asked about his influences. “They come in assorted pairs”, he said: “Perelman and Hemingway. Kierkegaard and Sabatini. Kafka and Kleist. Kleist was clearly one of Kafka’s fathers”. Robert Musil, when he first read Kafka, described him as “a peculiar case of the Walser type”. Which brings us to…

From 40 Stories, Penguin 1989, first published in the New Yorker December 1983. Hear Etgar Keret read and discuss the story here, and see the MTV short film here

‘King of Jazz’ by Donald Barthelme

King of short stories. As a recovering trombonist, I can hardly fail to be moved by the opening sentence: “Well I’m the king of jazz now, thought Hokie Mokie to himself as he oiled the slide on his trombone.” Sold! What follows is a riotous send-up of the endless “cutting contests” by which old-time jazzers, men to a man, fought their way to the top. Is there more to this story than the virtuosic language-games which Barthelme played almost better than anybody else? The answer lies in a strange paragraph which marks the turn of the tale. Here Barthelme, admittedly while describing Hokie’s solo on a tune called “Cream”, changes tack and embarks on a rapturous long list of improbably beautiful real and imagined sounds: “like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk” for example. Which elicits the comment “That was the dadblangedest thing I ever saw!”

(1977; now in Sixty Stories, Penguin. Online here